The corner of Craig Stevens' left eye is twitching. He can't stop it. We're sitting across the table from one another and again and again the eye twitches, a metronome of ocular discomfort.
"Can you see it?" he asks.
"Yeah," I say.
He nods, flexes his arms on the table, "I can't get it to stop. I was really worried about it, but then my girlfriend told me that sometimes your eye can start twitching when you get really stressed."
"Has your eye ever done this? Before a big game or anything like that?" I ask.
"No," Stevens says, "I think it's going to stop as soon as I finish the combine."
We're at Jonathan's Grille in Nashville, the final Saturday lunch of training, and I can tell all the guys, not just Craig, are very nervous about the upcoming combine. Conversations are quieter and less gregarious than they have been in the past. Guys kid each other more gently, as if they're aware how easily a tense situation can turn an otherwise innocuous comment into a disagreement. Occasionally guys are silent for several minutes in a row and absently stare at the televisions playing sporting events. Their eyes glaze over and it's clear that they're thinking about the combine, wondering about their 40 starts, about whether they've prepared as well as they possibly can, about how they're going to perform after years and months of training.
That Monday at the lifting session, the day before the guys begin to depart, players are either wacky or quiet. There is no middle ground. Jason Jones, defensive end from Eastern Michigan, puts on boxing gloves and walks around the gym challenging other players to box him. When none of the other players accept his challenge, Jones goes in search of a combatant into the training room, and then out onto the field. Frank Okam turns to me, "Why does every black person think they can box? Even if we've never even put on boxing gloves before?"
Craig Stevens is quieter than normal, his eye still pounding. As the light lifting session ends, Frank Okam lines up on the field and attempts to cover me one-on-one at the line of scrimmage. Kory Lichtensteiger is my quarterback. I beat Okam off the line twice, aided in no small measure by Okam's injured calf that is wrapped tightly in an ace bandage. He chucks me but I slide away. Although, to be fair, getting chucked at the line of scrimmage by Frank Okam is about what getting hit in a high school game feels like. The first route is a slant that Kory overthrows, but then I run a fade into a part of the field that was recently opened up by the departure of a high school girl's soccer team.
Okam is less than impressed with my catch. "Is that even in bounds?" he asks. Several guys lob taunts in Frank's direction. It's become quite clear to me that if an NFL team needs a wideout who can get past NFL linemen in the open field, I'm their man.
In the locker room, talk turns to how guys spent last year watching the NFL Draft on television. Most of the stories aren't particularly unique. "You can't put my name in the book, but we had a case contest," says one player.
"A case contest?" I ask.
"Yeah, me and several guys sit around and watch the draft and the first person to finish a case is the winner."
"That's 24 beers by yourself?" I ask.
"Yeah, it's pretty hard. Last year one of our friends wanted to do it but he didn't drink. So we made him do it with 12 cokes, and 12 7Up's. He ended up the worst of all of us."
"You finished the case during the draft?"
"Oh, yeah, easy. But I won't be drinking this year in case the teams are calling."
Tuesday is a very light day - the final day for the offensive linemen and tight ends before they depart for the combine. We do several striders and work, for the last time, on our footwork and steps for the 40, the pro shuttle, and the three-cone drill. Nothing is intense today, it's all about refining the technique.
When he finishes the final set of his NFL Combine training, a set of abs using a 25-pound plate cradled to his chest, an exhausted Craig Stevens tosses the weight to the ground and screams, "Finally, it's here! I am so ready for this! There's nothing left to do." He stares skyward, eye still twitching. "This f***ing eye," he says.
Kurt summons the offensive linemen and the tight ends to the locker room for a pep talk. "Nothing is going be different there than it was here," he says. "If you slip or if you f*** up on a drill, you have to let it go. Keep moving. Get better on the next one."
"The doctors are going to prod you, if you've had surgery they're going to dig at your knees and your shoulders, twist you ways you don't want to go, f*** with you. Don't flip out, grin and ask for more. You're pieces of meat now, and pieces of meat don't have feelings."
Now he moves on to more prosaic matters, "Take your backpacks, take your snack bars, bring something to drink. These days are long and you're going to get hungry. If you don't bring your backpack with something to eat, you'll be hungry and thirsty as hell. Bring plenty of food. At the end of the first day, get back to the hotel room and fill up your bathtub with ice, soak yourselves there. You're going to get tight after the first day because your bodies are going to be so tensed up. Get that lactic acid out. Whatever you do, make sure you're on time. And don't quit. Y'all are some badass motherf***ers, you're ready."
When Kurt Hester finishes, everyone is nervous. Stevens reads his old California playbook, a six-inch thick binder, in case teams ask him to diagram some plays in his interview. Steve Justice and Kory Lichtensteiger, wearing their matching straw cowboy hats, mill around the locker room making jokes as if they don't really want to leave. It's around 4 in the afternoon and several of the guys have flights leaving at 6 in the morning for Indianapolis. Other players are driving. Everyone exchanges hugs and wishes good luck to each other, it's like high school graduation.
Finally the offensive linemen and tight ends walk out of the D1 VIP locker room. For Craig Stevens, Brad Cottam, Geoff Schwartz, Kory Lichtensteiger, and Steve Justice, the first day of the rest of their lives is about to commence. We shake hands and I wish them all well. I feel sad, an odd feeling I'd never expected. It's only been a few months, but it feels like much longer. After all the training and studying, their graduation day has arrived, and my training is over.
But first comes the Clay Travis Combine.
Way back on October 30, I'd arrived at D1 and put myself through the initial combine testing. These were my results:
PRO SHUTTLE – 5.38 sec
BROAD JUMP – 5'6"
VERTICAL JUMP – 20 ½ "
40 YARD DASH – 6.16 sec
3 CONE DRILL – 9.04 sec
225 BENCH REP – 1
Now, one by one, I retake each of the tests with Wil Santi there to time me. Here are those results:
PRO SHUTLE – 4.91
BROAD JUMP – 6'6"
VERTICAL – 22
40 YARD DASH – 5.52
3 CONE DRILL – 7.91
225 BENCH REP - 4
I've improved significantly in every category, gained a full foot in my broad jump, sliced over a second off my 3 cone drill, and shaved .64 seconds off my 40, where I'm over five yards faster than I was. The results impress the guys, "You almost look like a football player," says Steve Justice. "Almost."
Kory Lichtensteiger pulls me aside, "Don't worry Bookman," he says, "I'm taking your book up there with me because these physicals supposedly take forever and I need something to kill the time."
Back in the locker room, I say goodbye to Firecracker Ryan Karl, Arkansas linebacker Weston Dacus, and Tennessee tight end Chris Brown. None of these guys have been invited to the combine, the invite list allows only 300 or so players. The fact that he hasn't been invited to the combine does nothing to dissuade Chris Brown's hopes. "I expect to get drafted Bookman, I really do."
Firecracker Karl is less certain. "I just want a chance, just somebody to give me a chance somewhere," he says.
Arkansas linebacker Weston Dacus pulls me aside. "Football's what I love to do," he says. "I've never wanted to come out of the games. Not even when I roughed the kicker on my first play against Texas during my freshman year." Dacus stares ahead out onto the indoor field, tightens his jaw, "I've had concussions," he says, "times when I couldn't even see straight and I lied to the trainers to get back on the field. I never want to get off that field."
Earlier that day Chris Brown gave Weston Dacus the best compliment a football player can give, "He plays straight downhill, Bookman." When a football player says another football player plays straight downhill, it means they don't let up, they don't cringe at the point of contact. They run through players, keep going, push themselves past the point of endurance. Now Weston Dacus watches as we file out the doors, "Good luck," he says. "Wish I was coming with you."
But the modern era of combine lore began with one man named Mike Mamula. Mamula, an undersized defensive end who left Boston College a year early for the NFL Draft, changed everything when he prepared exclusively for the combine drills. Mamula ran a 4.63 forty, tied for the most bench presses at the combine, and scored a 49 out of 50 on the Wonderlic test. Later he compared the combine to an open book test, you knew what the questions were in advance, all you had to do was perfect them. The term "workout warrior" was coined, and Mamula surged up draft boards, moving from a projected third round pick to seventh overall in the first round. In the process, he launched the NFL Combine workout, and changed the NFL Draft forever.
Thirteen years later over 500 credentialed media members pack themselves into two large conference rooms inside the Indianapolis Convention Center. The combine takes place inside the RCA Dome, but members of the media are not allowed inside. A phalanx of NFL security guards protect the entrance to the facility and turn away anyone who doesn't have an official pass. Of course this doesn't dissuade Kurt Hester.
"Hell no, I'm getting in there somehow, these are my boys." After working angles for hours, Hester manages to procure a pass to get inside for the events. He calls me from alongside the bench press, "We're doing good here!" he exclaims as he watches Steve Justice crank out 24 repetitions on the bench press.
One of the first things I see inside the media center is Purdue wide receiver Dorien Bryant strolling to the microphone. He waves at me and is immediately swarmed by reporters as he stands on a small dais, a podium featuring an NFL shield in front of him, and a blue curtain hanging on the wall. Beneath the microphone a bevy of reporters swirl around asking him what he hopes to run the 40 in, how he thinks playing in the Big Ten has prepared him for the combine, and whether he sees himself as a slot receiver in the NFL. Seeing Dorien brings home to me the jarring disconnect between training for months in seclusion and performing in public for seconds: It's time for the guys I've been training with to embrace their dreams, become professional football players.
But I quickly learn that the dirty little secret of attending the NFL Combine is that the NFL Network does such a tremendous job covering the event that every single fan sitting at home has more of an idea what's taking place than the actual media do. Yep, thanks to restricted access, the reporters who are there to cover the combine can't even see the drills.
So if you actually care what happens in these drills, which I do, you're relegated to watching one of four 20-inch televisions that are spaced around a large conference room. There's no sound and the television screens are so small it's almost impossible to actually see the players' numbers. Basically, going to the combine is the rough equivalent of traveling to the Super Bowl and then watching the game from a television screen behind the deli counter in a bad neighborhood.
I'm staying at the Courtyard by Marriott downtown. Easy enough, right? It would be, if there weren't two of them within a mile of each other. Of course I go to the wrong one. The guy at the front desk reacts like I've just shown up in Berlin, Germany when I meant to go to Orlando, Florida. This is our conversation. "Oh, gosh you're at the wrong hotel! How in the world did you manage that?"
"They have the same name and they're both downtown."
Contemptible shake of the head. "What you need to do is drive out until Maryland and New York intersect and then take two rights. Do you know where Maryland and New York intersect?"
"The state of Pennsylvania."
"Right. Just around the corner."
While I have trouble finding my hotel, Geoff Schwartz informs me that they're locked down at the NFL hotel. "They don't let anyone in but players. Not girlfriends, not moms, no one. The NFL security is strict." As if that weren't enough every player has a roommate they don't know. Schwartz's is large, from the SEC, and snores. "It's hard enough to sleep anyway," he says.
Back in the media room every 15 minutes or so players and coaches appear to talk to us. After about 10 minutes you realize, based on the size of the media horde there to cover the NFL Combine, you've basically just shown up at a high school prom and debriefed every high schooler as they enter the dance. Only the questions and responses of most of the players are less interesting than the prom-goer responses would be. All that matters is what they do on the field now.
An NFL public relations person makes announcements about which players are arriving and media from different parts of the country sprint to the podium where the player or coach will be speaking. If you really care what people are going to say you put a digital tape recorder on the stand to ensure that you don't miss a single uninteresting word.
The NFL PR people are there to lend helping hands to members of the media. Occasionally they'll introduce players by giving you a clue why you might want to speak with them. For instance, this is how Mark Bradford of Stanford was introduced. NFL PR person to room full of media: "Mark Bradford of Stanford." Pause as no one moves. "The one who made the catch against USC." Media moves. Bang, someone just got their story. How does the guy who made the catch against Stanford feel about the combine? There's gold there, gold.
Frank Okam calls me over while he sits at a table surrounded by media, "Bookman," he whispers, "this is crazy."
Across the hall from the media room, a gymnastics meet is taking place. I know because there's a trail of talcum powder in the hallway. Occasionally fathers sneak outside and crane their head over the confusion to see what's going on in the hallway. Several of the 10-year-old girl gymnasts come outside and the NFL Network's Adam Schefter makes sure to put his shoes with the lifts back on so he can look the gymnasts eye to eye.
While I can't watch the drills and see how my guys are doing, I can watch the television reporters. TV reporters are interesting because they look more natural on television than they do when they're not on television, the exact opposite of most average people. TV people have big heads and short legs, their upper bodies are more imposing than their lower bodies. And they're all really short. But their bodies are perfectly proportioned to look good on television. I don't know exactly how this works, but I picture television scouts seeing Bob Costas and having spontaneous orgasms. For instance, if you saw the NFL Network's Adam Schefter and me out at the bar, I'd look normal and Schefter would look kind of weird, trollish almost. But put us both on television and I resemble a much smaller Gheorghe Muresan, watching me makes you uncomfortable, and Schefter looks like Brad Pitt with dark hair.
I spend the next several hours rooting for the offensive linemen and tight ends I've trained with to run good 40 times by standing in front of one of the 20-inch TVs. After about 20 minutes I call my wife and ask her to DVR the NFL Network's coverage of the combine so I can tell what happens. "Aren't you there?" she asks.
Squinting at the tiny numbers on the tiny screens in the NFL Media room, I see Cal's Craig Stevens runs a 4.59, a great time for a tight end of his size. He also does 27 reps on 225. Meanwhile, Brad Cottam, who I've been waiting to put up an amazing 40 time that will sweep through the media room and become the story of the combine, runs twice in the 4.6's, a full two-tenths of a second slower than he ran on our combine simulation night two weeks ago. I try to figure out what happened by calling Kurt Hester but can't get an answer. Shortly thereafter I hear that Cottam pulled his hamstring and actually removed himself from the combine drills after the 40.
The fastest tight end, Dustin Keller of Purdue, runs a 4.55, Stevens is the third fastest at 4.59 and Brad Cottam is the fifth fastest at 4.63. Hester is pleased with both. "You could see Big Brad's hamstring was bothering him," he tells me, "but Craig was blazing. That's a great time for him, great time."
I watch Kory Lichtensteiger running on the screen, but then they cut away and I'm left scanning for his 40 times. He's done well, nearly broken 5.0. Meanwhile Steve Justice has not done as well, running in the 5.2 range. Geoff Schwartz, my old 40 nemesis, has also managed to pull off a 5.2. At this point it's official, Schwartz is faster than I am.
Back on television Kory Lichtensteiger is described thusly on the NFL Network screen: "Pros: Nasty Attitude. Cons: Short arms." This is superb. Told later that the short arms reputation continues to trail him, Kory tells me he's looking into Chinese surgery to lengthen his arms with screws. "Don't tell anyone, Bookman."
Steve Justice does well until the vertical jump, when he fails to jump high enough to touch the vertical bar, his worst fear. From there his performance begins to tail off, "I tried to tell him not let it psyche him out," says Hester. But Justice can't help it, he doesn't perform well at the combine.
Neither does Texas defensive tackle Frank Okam. Frank the Tank, a giant of a man when it comes to both intellect and heft, runs a 5.32 forty, an awful time for a man who two short years ago was projected as a first rounder. Okam discloses his injured calf to no one. As he runs through the position drills, Mike Mayock, the NFL Network's draft analyst rips him. "Frank Okam is fat and out of shape," he says, "doesn't he realize how important this is?"
Hester is unhappy with the criticism, which he considers unfair, because it makes light of Okam's 34 bench press repetitions on 225 pounds, tops among defensive tackles. "Dude, Mayock's got a lisp," he says, "doesn't he know how important it is for television people not to have lisps?"
Jason Jones, defensive end from Eastern Michigan, runs a 4.77. "That's a great time," says Hester, "he made himself some big money." Hester pauses for a moment, "But I think he could have gotten into the 4.6's and really burned up the draft charts." I watch Jones run on television, long legs, short torso flying across the field. When Jones sees his time, he places his hands on top of his head, breathes hard, turns, shakes his head in disappointment. But Jones' 40 has sent tongues wagging in NFL circles. In conjunction with his Senior Bowl performance he's made himself a lot of money.
Peyton Hillis, fullback from Arkansas whose triceps were too big for the 40, runs a personal best in the 40, a 4.58, tops among fullbacks at the draft. He also bench presses 225 24 times. The Arkansas backfield of Felix Jones, Darren McFadden, and Hillis post three of the top times for backs, adding further ammunition to Hillis bold contention that the trio represents "the best backfield in the history of college football."
A few days later Purdue's Dorien Bryant and Arkansas's Marcus Monk run with the wide receivers. Monk gets his goal, a 4.5 in the 40 -- 4.57 to be specific. "I told you, I was gonna get it Bookman," he says later. For the moment, Monk doesn't have to cut off his legs.
Now comes the mercurial Dorien Bryant. He needs to put up a time in the 4.3s to make up for his small stature, the 4.4s at worst. Dorien, who has been nursing injuries throughout the combine training schedule and has butted heads with Kurt Hester over his lack of participation in several drills, lines up his stance inside the RCA Dome turf. He stretches a bit, exhales, stares ahead at the 40 yard distance. Then he's off.
I watch him on television, rooting for him to succeed, just as I've rooted for everyone else to succeed all day long. He passes across the 40 line, and his time flashes on the screen. Dorien Bryant runs a 4.53.
An awful time for a small wide receiver.
Caleb Campbell, the first skill position player to ever be invited to the combine from Army, runs a 4.56 40. After his first 40, Campbell's hamstring tightens up on him. "I was hoping to get in the 4.4s," he tells me. As he's debating whether he needs to run another 40 and risk a more serious injury, Matt Millen, general manager of the Detroit Lions, walks down to the railing and leans over, "You've done enough Cadet Campbell," he says. "More than enough."
And just like that, the NFL Combine is over.
Geoff Schwartz calls me that afternoon, "I've got no money left," Schwartz says. "They fly me back to Los Angeles, and then I'm going to sit around for a while, try to get ready for the bench press at Oregon." Bothered by his wrist, Schwartz elects not to bench at the combine. Kory Lichtensteiger returns to Ohio. "Everyone in my hometown thinks I'm huge," he says, "I showed them a picture that I got taken with Jake Long (Michigan's offensive tackle and the draft's eventual No. 1 pick) and he towered over me. They thought I'd doctored the photo."
I talk to Craig Stevens as he travels in a shuttle to the airport for his flight back to Berkeley. "My eye stopped twitching," he says.
One of FanHouse's newest additions, Clay Travis is the author of Dixieland Delight and the forthcoming On Rocky Top: A Front-Row Seat to the End of an Era. For several years he wrote the ClayNation column for CBS Sportsline, worked as an editor for Deadspin.com, and practiced law, where his love for the billable hour rivaled only his love for the WNBA. He's convinced that his 40 time is much better than yours.